Colombo Air Symposium 01-12-2016

It was an excellent symposium organized by Sri Lanka Air Force. Following is the full presentation I made at the Colombo Air Symposium 01-12-2016

Air Power in the Context of Regional Security and Defense:“Extending a smart air power approach in South Asia” By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera Director General INSSSL

Good afternoon, Distinguished officers of the military and all distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman. It is with great pleasure I present this paper on Air Power in the Context of Regional Security and Defense:“Extending a smart air power approach in South Asia” co-authored with Ms.Piyumani Ranasinghe who was one of my best students and now a Research Analyst at INSSSL the newly established security think tank by HEMaithripala Sirisena President of Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka with a long term vision to become a leading security think tank in the region. Firstly let me congratulate Secretary Defence,the commander of Sri Lanka Air Force and organisers for this successful conference bringing the leading scholars to discuss on a timely topics of regional interest. I thank the commander of SL Air Force for giving INSSSL this opportunity to present this paper.

Introduction: Link between Air Power and Regional Security

Air power in a strictly military sense is the “ability of a nation to project military force by or from a platform in the third dimension above the surface of the earth.” Even if early visionaries such as Churchill underlined the difficulty in propounding a definition that enclasps the notion of air power, modern security literature has outlined its essence in comprehensive forms of explanation. Accordingly, air power can be understood as means of exerting a nation’s will though the medium of air. This unfolds a wider understanding of air power as an arena of both hard and soft power capabilities at the hand of a nation’s will.

The importance of air power lies in its unique advantage over the other two mediums of military power; as the control of air translates into power over land and water. However, air power is a relational phenomenon, which should be understood in relation to the terrain and the sea.

Regional Security, similarly, is a relational phenomenon, and as Barry Buzan notes one cannot understand the security of any given state without understanding the international pattern of security interdependence in which it is embedded in.

Hence, the conventional definition of air power, as an offensive military tool, is obsolete at the face of the complexity and changing strategic environments within the regional blocs across the globe. In this context the Sri Lankan air power should extend in to a smart power dimension given the transformed security threats at the face of the region.. Accordingly, such a smart air power dimension should involve a tri-fold smart security venture.

Exporting Competence in Excelling the Perfect Mix

Firstly, Sri Lanka’s ability to invest in a regional counter-terrorism strategy and stringent security architecture should be highlighted. The nation’s expertise in unfolding the prefect mix of military capabilities in terms of understanding the terrain accredited the military with a capital of knowledge and experience which only a handful of countries can boast of. This in-house expertise of the SLAF is unarguably a resource that ought to be exported into the South Asian stage, which is antagonized by the threats of transnational terrorism in the present day. The preponderant evidence of the regional security environment, including the attack on Bangladeshi soil this year, furbishes the simultaneous rise of pressing intra-state security issues and the consequent security tensions that it can kindle. In the post-IS age of terror and extremism, the enemy is no more an intruder. Thus, the air power capabilities of SLAF, in terms of countering terrorism as a part of excelling the prefect mix, undoubtedly is of epitome value in terms of enhancing the regional security infrastructure that is stringent against the threat of terrorism.

Moreover, one of the major threats to the air power of Sri Lanka lies in the rapid development in air power in the South Asian theatre. Thus, on one hand extending such an informative arm on the part of the SLAF breaks a new opportunity to collaborate with regional counterparts in sharing resources, technology and expertise of those nations in order to further enhance the air power capabilities of the country and mitigate the potential threats that can stem from an imbalance of regional powers in South Asia. On the other hand, it allows Sri Lanka to serve as an informative platform in diffusing its wealth of knowledge in countering terrorism to the South Asian stage. The SLAF, in this regard, should play a pivotal role in order to enable such diffusion of information to fellow military counterparts in the region.

Sri Lanka as a Humanitarian Hub

Secondly, augmenting a smart air power approach in the region requires the extension of national air power to suit the requisites of the changing regional and global security environments. Air power as a military instrument can extend into offensive as well as non-offensive means as it comprises unique characteristics such as height, speed and reach. As opposed to the offensive air power campaigns that illuminated the cold war skies; in the post-cold war world order, global air forces have simultaneously partaken in far more non-conventional conflicts, such as: East Timor 2001; Libya 2011 and disaster relief operations: 2011 East Japan Earthquake; 2014 Typhoon Haiyan. In this regard, evidently smaller air powers in the world have deferred from their offensive flair and have restructured the strategic air power capabilities in order to suit more pressing peacetime requirements.

The idea here is that, the SLAF’s humanitarian assistance prospective should similarly extend to complement the pressing non-offensive regional security issues that can impede human security, especially given the geopolitical setting of Sri Lanka, as an air power located in the focal point of the Indian Ocean. In line with the Sri Lankan government’s “Global hub concept,” SLAF has the ability to pioneer an initiative in extending its non-offensive capabilities unto creating a humanitarian hub within the region. United Arab Emirates (UAE) have already taken initiative to be the first global logistics hub for distributing humanitarian aid in response to regional disasters and crises in 2021. This initiative foregrounds the potential Sri Lanka holds in terms of geopolitical significance and capacity in creating a similar humanitarian hub that can be a logistical focal point in times of regional disasters and humanitarian catastrophes in South Asia and Asia.

The SLAF is already a regional actor in Search and Rescue Operations (SAR operations) where the effectiveness of helicopters and other air assets, the operational readiness, correct and timely use and the operational proficiency of the SLAF have saved many lives in distress over land and sea at difficult times, especially during the 2004 Tsunami and the recent floods and landslides. Accordingly, this efficiency should extend in the regional context with the assistance and the collaborative partnership of other humanitarian nodes and states, where Sri Lanka could act as an enabling platform of logistical and operational support in the region at times of natural calamities and man-made disasters. This enables a smart national air power strategy within the region. In this light, few recommendations can be made as follows:

  1. Acting as a maritime humanitarian hub given the geostrategic location of Sri Lanka, 9.5 km away from South Coast to the Sea Lines of Communications, the busiest international shipping lines. SLAF can facilitate SAR operations of vessels in distress situations due to ship wreck, fire, mechanical failure etc.
  2. Acting as an airborne communication medium in monitoring and coordinating humanitarian assistance with regard to refugees or at the event of manmade calamities such as oil spills.
  3. The geographic location of the Indian Ocean nations renders the countries vulnerable to natural calamities such as seismic related Earthquakes and Tsunami. Sri Lanka as a humanitarian logistical hub in the focal point of the Indian Ocean in this regard is of substantial significance.

Space Security as a Fourth Dimension

Introducing Space security as the fourth dimension, in terms of extending a smart air power approach into the region is another essentiality in the changing security environment of the region. Over the past few years, especially in the age of the fourth industrial revolution (industry 4.0), the concept of space security has gained substantial interest in the military arena all over the world, despite the little attention paid to the space security dimension in Sri Lanka in the present context. At the onset of the space age, marked by the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, space technology was limited to national security and telecommunication, although however, in the world today societies are exceedingly reliant on space technology for GPS navigation, weather forecasting, satellite television and even personal telephone calls. By 2016 almost 1,300 satellites orbit the earth, operated by 80 different countries and organisations, providing a wealth of services for billions of earth dwellers. Both civilian and military actors use space systems for a wide range of activities, including earth observation and environmental monitoring, early warning and reconnaissance, navigation and communications. Note worthily, given the ever evolving cutting-edge technology, many developed economies, of both the East and the West, are now heavily dependent on space technology which renders their military capabilities to be far stronger and stringent. In military terms this dependence involves constituencies of precision weaponry, drone surveillance and real-time field communications.

Thus, on the one hand, the extension of air power in to a fourth dimension and introducing space security into a regional security framework is of essence especially in combating cyber security issues that persist within the region, which stems from the weak space security infrastructure that is prevalent in the South Asian theatre. On the other, since India is one among ten other nations in the global stage that have 29 governmental, 4 military including launch of the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) reconnaissance satellite capability and 3 civil and commercial operating satellites, collaborative initiatives can mellow a wealth of benefits to the other regional counterparts in combating non-traditional security issues such as cyber threats and transnational terrorism.

Furthermore, in the East Asian neighborhood, Japan and China are two other nations that encompass the space dimension as global and regional giants. Japan has already set the stage as a technological giant in the region for joint operations in terms of intelligence sharing with the US, where the US is using Japan as a space security platform.

In this light, the regionally less debated novel dimension of security should be brought into the forefront in order to facilitate the creation of a new security architecture that is resilient against the new threats of cyber warfare and space insecurity.


In conclusion we have explored the importance of a smart power dimension in Sri Lankan Air power in relation to regional security and defense. The point is understanding the importance of transforming the Sri Lankan identity from a “soldier of a thirty year ethnic war”, to a smart power advocate, highlighting the importance of military capabilities in informing, influencing and shaping ideas in the regional stage. Having much to offer, it is important for us to collaborate and integrate with other cultures in ensuring sustainable security in the region. After all, one should reminiscence that, “the pain of one nation is the pain of another.”